Wetzel County Oil Fields

It’s A Gasser: The First Wetzel Oil and Gas Boom

by Brenda Dorsey, Staff Writer - The Wetzel Chronicle April 2, 2008

Twisted rusty cable, shoulder high iron wheels, two-and-a-half inch pipe re-cycled to fence posts—it’s hard to travel an old road or cross a stream bed in Wetzel County without seeing the remnants of the oil and gas boom of the early 1900’s.

Like burnt sienna artifacts of a past civilization, the traces of the old wells are still here. One hundred years later new roads are being built to access well sites and aband2008oned “played out” wells are being re-drilled, old technologies giving way to deeper drilling, horizontal shafts, and slanted access pipes. Once one of the state’s leading oil and gas producers, did Wetzel experience a surge in prosperity that should came with an oil and gas boom, and if not, why?

As early as 1775 George Washington found outflows of petroleum “burning springs” in what is now Kanawha County, and native tribes’ use of oil predates that by hundreds of years. Early oil men were actually looking for salt, and oil was seen in the early 1800’s as a nuisance to be gotten rid of to access the real quarry. In 1781 Thomas Jefferson reportedly lit escaping natural gas fumes in what was to become West Virginia near where the Rathbone family drilled for salt and found gas and oil in the 1850’s on the Hughes River, Wirt County.

Wetzel County was formed just two years before the first well in the United States was drilled in Titusville, Pa., in 1848. One decade later, although Wetzel County per se is mentioned little in early historical accounts of the d Aay, by 1859 oil boom towns were developing in nearby Sistersville and Mannington and the Jacksonburg-Stringtown area of Wetzel.

Wetzel County histories do not agree on the first oil or gas well ever drilled in the county. John C. McEldowney Jr. in 1901 reported in his “History of Wetzel County” that near Archer’s Fork (also called Arches Fork) near Smithfield, “...the first oil well that was drilled in the county was located, being the well known Robinson No. 2, and was drilled by David McCain for the South Penn Oil co. in 1893....” However, as early as 1866 a news story in “The Weekly Union,” a Wheeling newspaper, said in a story entitled “Oil in Wetzel County” “...at a depth of 370 feet a vein of oil was struck on Long Run in Wetzel County...a stream about seven miles east of New Martinsville...The show is sufficiently strong to prove that oil in that county is in great quantities as found in Pleasants and Wood counties.”

Known as the first era of shallow 100-foot wells, in the initial three decades only wells in the so-called “oil belt” were intensely developed. The U.S. Geological Survey states from 1879 to 1889 oil production declined due to the inability of drillers boring into deeper sands. In 1889 large iron pipes were inserted to prevent wells from clogging. An important geologist of the day, Dr. I. C. White, developed the theory of anticlinal gas and oil accumulation. He insisted the theory be tested in West Virginia, where he believed much oil was not being tapped. Tested first in Mannington, just across the border from Wetzel, his theory proved true and the rich fields there were accessed.

Also coming from the north to the Wetzel area, Pennsylvania operators such as E. M. Hukill and Company developed oil fields in 1865 in Mt. Morris, Pa. and the Wetzel County fields were explored by Hukill and other companies such as South Penn Oil, Jennings Oil, Dewitt Oil, McDermitt Oil, Smith and Atkins, Carter Oil, and Standard Oil, to mention only a few.

In 1860 oil sold for $7 a barrel, and “natural gushers” came in at only 100 feet. Men could earn $150 per month as oil field workers, “roustabouts” earned $65 per month—the same as bookkeepers. To present an idea of how cost of living may have increased, in 2008 a roustabout generally earns around $300 per day and oil sells for over $100 per barrel.

Wealthy oil men often became politicians and in the Wetzel area names like Paden, Goff, Benedum, Clark, Morris, Carney, Wiley, Cain, or Morgan prospered, some by direct contact with the oil and gas industry, and some by providing indirect needs to the industry such as timber, teams, and housing. Most of the oil was transported by river or rail and communities that had stations or wharves became busy commercial centers, such as Hundred and Littleton.

By the mid-1890’s oil “boomtowns” popped up in Wetzel County. These towns have been described by authors such as Eugene Thoenen in “History of the Oil and Gas Industry in West Virginia” as “erected for utility rather than beauty.” He describes the Hotel Roane at Piney Fork, “178 feet by 40 feet wide, 22 rooms, with dining room, gambling room, barber shop, and saloon. There were 74 permanent boarders and an average of 25 transient guests. A nearby building for dances and shows, considered part of the hotel, was 20 by 80 feet. . . a livery stable had 16 horses for hire.” Listed by McEldowney as merely a “stopping place for a great many strangers,” Piney Fork received but a passing mention in his 1901 book on Wetzel County.

Names for hamlets such as Onie, near Wileyville at the mouth of Honey Run, are on a few maps, but the town itself disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared. The late Cora Greathouse of Greathouse Hill near Wileyville recalled Onie had a bar, a blacksmith, and a hotel.

At the turn of the 20th century, oil boom towns such as Onie, above, near the mouth of Honey Run near Wileyville popped up seemingly overnight. East Resources now has a field office and wells at this location, but for many decades the fields were used for hay.

Oil production peaked in 1893 in the Sistersville area and generally in West Virginia by 1900 the state ranked second in oil production, with Ohio as number one and Pennsylvania ranked as number three. West Virginia produced 16 million barrels in 1900. In March 1900 a well in Wallace was called the largest producer of oil in the United States at that time, making 4,000 barrels a day.

Gas activity developed parallel to oil and companies such as South Penn had oil and gas divisions. Oil and gas publications of the day, such as “The Natural Gas Industry”, published monthly in the 1920’s, reported on gas activity county-by-county: “Wetzel County—The Carnegie Natural Gas Company’s test on the J. E. Williams farm is a gasser in the Gordon sand. In the Church district, the Miller Gas and Oil Company has a gasser in the 30-foot sand at a test on the Belle Robinson farm.” Other companies who had leased rights to test for wells were Ellis Miller Company, Eastern Petroleum Oil Company, Johns Oil Company, the Philadelphia Oil and Gas Company, and Equitable Gas. Equitable Gas alone held 24,000 acres of developed and undeveloped acreage in leases in 1909.

Oil production began a general decline as oil fields were tapped out. By 1927 West Virginia ranked 12th in oil production. Although World War I brought about greater demands, the price of oil dropped to 64 cents per barrel in 1915. Oil speculators felt the increased cost of retrieving the deeper oil did not offset the likelihood of failure in obtaining “oil in paying sufficient quantities to justify the risk,” according to Thoenen. Production dropped in West Virginia from near 6 million barrels in 1925 to just over 2 million barrels in 1960. As the Great Depression set in, many smaller oil and gas companies went under.

Gas wells and combined gas and oil wells seemed to be the one area in which West Virginia and Wetzel County could hope to see some stability in production. Most towns in Wetzel used gas as their primary source of energy for cooking and heating at the turn of the century. The growth of the natural gas industry in West Virginia was phenomenal. In 1897 there were 196 wells; by 1906 there were 1,831, and in 1910 there were 4,052 active gas wells. By 1910 West Virginia was the number one gas producer in the United States, in both quantity and value, and according to Thoenen, the state held that position until 1923. From 1897 to 1937 West Virginia contributed $4 billion worth of gas—one-half of the value of all gas produced in the United States.

The question must be asked, with all the billions of dollars being made on West Virginia oil and gas up to the 1930’s, where is the comparable surge in the state’s economic well-being, it’s extensive system of well-maintained roads to export its bounty, and the developed tax base that produces first quality schools and commerce?

It is unfortunate that the standstill in drilling techniques which prohibited cost-effective oil and gas field expansion coincided with the Great Depression. Thoenen posits that the export of much of West Virginia’s gas and oil is one of the reasons large refineries were not built in West Virginia near its two metropolitan areas, Charleston and Huntington. Two major corporations, Hope and United Fuel, dominated the gas industry, “for some observers this first integration was looked upon as a negative and undesired development, for into it were read the evils of corporate bigness and monopoly. . . when Standard Oil interests were identified as part of the new gas industry, fear was expressed for the independent operators and small distributors.”

Like it or not, the network of pipelines exporting gas from West Virginia to the industrial areas in the east provided a way for all companies large and small to transport their product, although many of the smaller companies could not compete. One such system was the Hope Gas16-inch lines forcing gas 35 miles northward from Hastings to the Pennsylvania line.

The path that began at the turn of the century continued to the 1950’s and, as oil and gas fields played out, some companies held oil and gas in reserve to sell at a time when demand would return.

Once one of the state’s leading oil and gas producers that made little burgs such as Onie near Wileyville and Piney Fork spring up almost overnight, will Wetzel experience the prosperity that should come with an oil and gas boom as current drilling escalates?

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